Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has widened his lead in Iowa over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards heading into Thursday's nominating caucuses, according to The Des Moines Register's final Iowa Poll before the 2008 nominating contests.
Obama's rise is the result in part of a dramatic influx of first-time caucusgoers, including a sizable bloc of political independents. Both groups prefer the Illinois senator in what has been a very competitive campaign. Obama was the choice of 32 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, up from 28 percent in the Register's last poll in late November, while Clinton, a New York senator, held steady at 25 percent and Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, was virtually unchanged at 24 percent.
The poll reflects continued fluidity in the race even as the end of the yearlong campaign nears. Roughly a third of likely caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to choose someone else before Thursday evening. Six percent were undecided or uncommitted.
The poll also reveals a widening gap between the three-way contest for the lead and the remaining candidates. No other Democrat received support from more than 6 percent of likely caucusgoers.
The findings mark the largest lead of any of the Democratic candidates in the Register's poll all year, underscoring what has been a hard-fought battle among the three well-organized Iowa frontrunners. It is also the only recent poll of Iowa caucusgoers showing Obama with a lead larger than the survey's margin of sampling error, which is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The telephone survey of 800 likely Democratic caucusgoers was taken Dec. 27-30.
In an indication of the Obama's appeal in Iowa, Democratic caucusgoers say they prefer change and unity over other leadership characteristics. Selecting a candidate who represents a sharp departure from the status quo is 56-year-old Lansing Democrat John Rethwisch's priority, and his main reason for backing Obama.
"I have been seeing more and more something Kennedy-esque coming from Obama," said Rethwisch, Lansing's water and sewer administrator. "But it's always a gamble when you get somebody in there who hasn't got a proven track record."
Thirty percent of the poll's respondents said a candidate's ability to bring about change is the most important, followed by 27 percent who said their priority is choosing a candidate who will be the most successful in unifying the country.
Asked which candidate would do the best on these themes, caucusgoers most commonly name Obama. The first-term U.S. senator has argued in the closing weeks of the campaign that his newness to Washington, D.C., would help him bridge a politically divided nation and improve its standing overseas.
Having the experience and competence to lead, which has been the crux of Clinton's closing argument, was seen as the most important to 18 percent of caucusgoers, with Clinton as the candidate most commonly rated best on this trait.
The candidates routinely argue they are the best able to win in November, although only 6 percent of the poll's respondents identified being best able to win the general election as the top priority.
Rethwisch is also part of the majority of caucusgoers who plan to attend their first caucus Thursday. Sixty percent would be attending for the first time, reflecting the emphasis the campaigns have put on expanding the pool of participants.
All of the three leaders in Iowa draw a majority of support from new caucusgoers, although Obama benefits the most with 72 percent of his support coming from first-timers compared to 58 percent of Clinton's and 55 percent of Edwards'supporters.
Longtime Democrat Darlene Inman, 72, is a first-time caucusgoer who supports Clinton. The Mason City retired homemaker represents the heart of Clinton's support base, older women who are registered Democrats.
"She talks straight about helping everybody. She tells it like it is," Inman said.
Inman said she first motivated to participate in the caucuses because of dissatisfaction with President Bush. But she said she hesitated to back Clinton until she settled on her as the most qualified, in part because of her association former President Clinton.
"I was kind of doubtful, but then I stopped and thought that when Bill Clinton was president, jobs were plentiful and the country was running well," Inman said. "With Bush in there, it's been very worrisome and I think she can get in there and turn it around."
Clinton has made an aggressive effort to court female, first-time caucusgoers, especially younger women and those who are retired. Women account for 58 percent of caucusgoers, according to the survey.
Clinton has rebounded among female caucusgoers in general, pulling even with Obama at 32 percent after losing her edge among this key group to him in the previous Register poll.
Clinton receives more support from women 55 years old and older than her rivals, and she and Obama draw evenly from the pool of female caucusgoers between 35 and 54 years old.
However, she trails Obama badly among women under 35, with just 15 percent to his 57 percent.
Obama's advantage among younger women reflects his decided advantage among younger voters in general. A majority of caucusgoers under 35 support Obama, more than three times the support Edwards receives from them and five times Clinton's.
Caucusgoers under the age of 35 represent 17 percent of likely attendees, higher than any Register poll this year but lower than any other age group.
Clinton led narrowly in the Register's October poll, but slipped in the survey taken in late November. During that period Obama and Edwards sharpened their criticism of Clinton, who has led in national polls of Democratic preference. Likewise, Clinton went on the attack in November, questioning Obama's experience and characterizing his health care proposal as less than comprehensive.
Clinton remains the favorite of the party faithful, with support from a third of self-described Democrats. However, Obama is the clear choice of caucusgoers who affiliate with neither the Democrat or Republican parties, with roughly 40 percent of them backing him in the survey.
The support from non-Democrats is significant because a whopping 40 percent of those planning to attend described themselves as independent and another 5 percent as Republican. Only registered Democrats can participate in the caucuses, although rules allow participants to change their party registration on their way in to the caucuses.
Edwards' support has changed little since the last poll, when he was the choice of 23 percent of likely caucusgoers. He led the Register's May poll with 29 percent.
He remained the choice of older men and drew evenly with Clinton from caucusgoers 55 and older.
One such Democrat, 84-year-old Ruth Paulsen of Milford, said Edwards' charisma and message of economic fairness appeals to her.
"I like the way he speaks, with energy and enthusiasm," said Paulsen. "The others are all right, but I like Edwards because he talks the most about change."
Despite aggressive campaigns in Iowa by Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, none has been able to break into the pack at the top. In fact, support for Biden and Richardson slipped somewhat in the new poll.
An analysis of likely caucusgoers' second choices showed that the results would change little if the votes for the lower-rated candidates were redistributed among the front-runners.